Picture the scene: a 5 year old girl loses a game with her family. She flings herself, sobbing, to the floor wailing “I never win!”
Her family responds with mild sympathy, before explaining that you can’t win every time. That it’s only fair for everyone to get a turn, and that the important thing is to have fun playing the game. It doesn’t matter who wins.
A 9 year old performs a variation on the same scene. She gets rather less sympathy, and a terse description of how life works. After all, she is 9. She should know better.
An adult does it, and you quietly decide never to play with her again. It’s no fun.
When a whole country does it, what can you do?
The Australian media has been screaming since roughly day one of the Olympic games about how we have failed. We have received our “worst result in 20 years.” Shock! Horror! Betrayal! Who can we blame?
Armchair experts around the country bemoan Liesl’s weight and James’s nerves. They whine about the obvious inadequacy of the coaches. About not receiving the medals we thought we had bought. Woe is us, alas, alack.
I know I am danger of harping on about this, but Nobel Prize Winner Peter Doherty’s instruction to students that they should not be afraid to fail keeps coming back to me. It’s not only true in science, but in life. Anything you can achieve first time is not terribly difficult, and most likely not terribly interesting. The only way to achieve success is to pick yourself up each time you get knocked down. To dust yourself off, learn from your mistakes and do better next time. And to do it over and over again.
You’ve been keeping to yourself these days
Cause you’re thinking everything’s gone wrong
Sometimes you just want to lay down and die
But that emotion can be so strong
But hold on ’till that old second wind comes along
This is resilience. Many of the world’s most momentous scientific discoveries were accidents. (The most well known is penicillin.) If you know how every experiment is going to turn out, then you’re not going to discover anything new. Scientists not only expect the unexpected, they seek it, and must be open to it in order to make discoveries. That’s not failure. That’s progress. Learning what doesn’t work is as important as knowing what does – even if it’s not as newsworthy.
You better believe there will be times in your life
When you’ll be feeling like a stumbling fool
So take it from me you’ll learn more from your accidents
Than anything that you could ever learn at school
Second Wind (You’re Only Human) – Billy Joel
One of the most important life skills we can teach our kids is how to be resilient. How to learn more, become stronger, and reach higher after every mistake. How to bounce back, get back on that horse, and keep going in the face of adversity. Yet what are we teaching our kids with our response to the Olympics?
That only gold counts. If you’re not a winner, you’re a loser – end of story. The papers are screaming about how our athletes have failed us. How each medal cost us over 10 million dollars. They want to cut spending to sport – and don’t get me wrong. I am not against a rational redistribution of funds. I’d love to see Australians as excited about science as they are about football, and funding it with equal enthusiasm.
But this is not a rational conversation about finance. This is a tantrum we are throwing because the medals we counted failed to hatch. Never mind personal bests, amazing achievements that came in fourth, and the work that went into actually making it to the olympics at all. None of that counts if you don’t bring home a gold medal. Never mind sportsmanship. Forget what you actually achieved. We don’t want to know you unless you won a medal.
Sorry kids. Do as we say, not as we do.